It’s been exactly a year since my community chorus last sang together in person. The absence of our Monday night rehearsals, not to mention our bi-annual concerts, has left a hole in my life that is astounding. I know my fellow chorus members feel the same.
Choral singing requires breathing in and expelling air forcefully, over and over again, in close quarters. It’s no wonder that group singing has been identified as one of the more dangerous behaviors one can engage in during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ironically, the one thing that could bring us hope and comfort during this time could also kill us.
But we’re also missing out on some very real, research-based health benefits that will be ours once again, once the pandemic is behind us and we can resume our regular meetings.
And while the age of our chorus members ranges from their 20s to their 80s, research is telling us that these benefits are especially available to our older members.
Group singing is good for emotional health
Choir singing has been associated with better mood and quality of life in healthy older adults.
In Great Britain, joining a choir could soon be part of a “prescription” given to people with mental health disorders, as more and more doctors become trained in “social prescribing.”
“We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration,” British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said recently. “Social prescribing can help us combat over-medicalizing people.”
Studies show that, when people sing in a group, their heart rates tend to beat in sync, producing a calming effect.
Group singing alleviates Parkinson’s symptoms
At the Society for Neuroscience’s 2018 conference, Elizabeth Stegemoller, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, presented findings about group singing and Parkinson’s disease.
Her study revealed that, following a one-hour weekly group singing session, participants’ blood pressure, cortisol levels and heart rate were reduced, and they showed improvements in motor abilities, such as gait, that don’t readily respond to medications.
Cognitive skills are strengthened when we sing together
Most recently, Finnish researchers have found evidence of the cognitive benefits that choral singing offers to older adults.
Singing in a chorus strengthens cognitive flexibility and improves executive functioning (the many tasks our brains perform that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems) as much as playing an instrument does.
According to doctoral student Emmi Pentikäinen, “choir singing provides a good opportunity to support the wellbeing of the elderly, as it requires flexible executive function and the regulation of attention.”
To sing requires one to process sensory stimuli (the voices of other singers). It involves motor function (voice production and control). It involves learning and memorizing melodies and lyrics.
In other words, singing presents multiple cognitive challenges that can strengthen an older person’s cognitive abilities.
Join a chorus!
I joined my community chorus at age 59. Until then, I’d never sung in front of anyone before. When I auditioned for my voice part, I couldn’t even look at the director.
Today, I’m part of a group of largely over-60’s who can’t wait until we can get back to blending our voices together. We miss the camaraderie. And I’m willing to bet that I’m cognitively sharper than I would have been without it.
My advice: if you’ve ever had the urge to sing in a group, find a local chorus and join. There are hundreds of community choruses in towns and cities throughout the United States, and around the world.
Just do it!
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British Doctors May Soon Prescribe Art, Music, Dance, Singing Lessons Smithsonian Magazine